Strong, memorable characters appear to be a common thread among these favorites, something not planned but that made itself known once I pulled my favorites all together. Also, this year-end list includes books not published in 2021. I realize the point of these lists is to highlight the year’s best new releases, and yet, since the start of the pandemic, I’ve more and more been making room for other books I want to read in addition to the shiny new ones. To that point, instead of William Boyd’s new release this year, Trio, I read one of his earlier novels, Any Human Heart (see below).
The ending of Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These got me all choked up. Even when I talked about the book on the radio, the feeling returned, brought on by Keegan’s powerful depiction of overwhelming joy mixed with hope while making a right choice that’s yet burdened with a fear that lies up ahead. The novel’s protagonist Bill Furlong, who delivers coal to his small Irish community in 1985, witnesses something that forces him to face his past and an ongoing tragic secret of the local Catholic convent. His response to what he sees is heroic, morally gratifying, and deeply affecting. Small Things Like These is a novella, i.e., shorter than a novel but longer than a short story.
Natasha Brown’s Assembly similarly packed a memorable punch with me via her nameless first-person narrator, a Black British career woman breaking through the glass ceiling in the competitive, male world of financial banking. The hidden emotional extremes she endures so as to fit in — not only as a woman but also as a woman of color — are shocking, and intimately revealing of corporate harassment and prejudice. This striking woman is yet another deeply affecting character who got to me. Assembly, also a novella, can be read in one sitting, but you’ll want to take it slowly to fully comprehend the emotional drama.
How can anyone not love the character Frank in Gregory Galloway’s Just Thieves. He’s the narrator’s partner in this funny, heartwarming, yet also dark story of petty thieving. While the mystery of what happens to Frank and to a highly coveted cheap trophy keep the pages turning, it’s Frank who puts the story into this top ranking for me: his philosophical wisdom and quirky nature that needs to think through all sides of anything out of the ordinary. That includes a dead horse on the street in front of their hotel the morning the two thieves are to steal the trophy.
So much of our literature is about the spectacular, but in Zorrie, author Laird Hunt superbly illustrates the significance of the ordinary. His story follows the life of Zorrie Underwood, the novel’s eponymous protagonist who finds love and community in the small towns and open fields of 20th century Indiana. “Her pull toward the rural environment of her native state is much more than wrenching homesickness,” I wrote in my review. Indeed, it is about Mr. Hunt’s convincing theme of belonging, of being so deeply rooted in a place as to be indelibly merged into its elements. Zorrie was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction.
Damon Galgut took the Booker Prize this year for The Promise, a profound story set in South Africa on a family farm outside Pretoria. The youngest daughter overhears a promise her father makes to her dying mother, and she becomes the moral compass of the family that over time ignores it and what should have been done. The four chapters take us through four decades, each anchored by the death of a family member, a clever technique that gathers the family together after those decades apart. It’s truly remarkable storytelling, with Galgut’s use of South African history and his creation of each family member and their devoted housekeeper.
The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter, translated by Frank Wynne, spans 70 years focused on three generations of a French-Algerian family on two shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It captures the tragic consequences of the patriarch’s decision to help the French during the Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s. Ali is the character that haunted me after the novel’s end, for what he lost and suffered when forced to relocate to Paris after the war, including the trickle-down effect on his children. This is a heartbreaking and illuminating view into the world of French Algerians and their immigrant experience.
I couldn’t put this book down. When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, translated by Adrian Nathan West, is a hybrid work of fiction and nonfiction about genius scientists and the power of their discoveries to both save and destroy the world. It brings to life such intellects as Fritz Haber, a German chemist who won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Shinichi Mochizuki, a Japanese mathematician who in 2012 published six hundred pages on his blog containing a proof of one of the most important conjectures in number theory. Scientific details don’t overwhelm Labatut’s storytelling, nor do they put off those of us who don’t take to science. This enthralling book was a finalist for the National Book Award for Translated Fiction.
The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez, translated by Natasha Wimmer, was also a finalist for the National Book Award for Translated Fiction. It’s a difficult story that mesmerized me by the way Fernandez moves us through past and present during a terrifying time in Chilean history. Her narrator is obsessed about a man she remembers from childhood that was on the cover of a magazine in 1984 with the quote “I tortured people.” Now a documentarian, she’s at work piecing together facts with what she imagines about him and “the disappeared” during the Pinochet dictatorship, when dissenters to the ruling regime vanished. An important book and a brilliantly conceived novel.
The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood feels like a surprise find. It was published in the spring of 2020*, and seems to have gotten lost in the pandemic shutdown. It’s the only way I can explain why it didn’t get the media attention it deserves. The involving and sometimes suspenseful story revolves around a tight-knit group of students studying at Germany’s Bauhaus art school during the 1920s. The narrator is looking back to this time, forty years later, and begins this tale of love and betrayal ready to make a confession. I regard The Hiding Game now as among my forever favorites, those books that come to mind when out of the blue I get asked for a good book to read.
*The paperback featured here was published April 2020. The hardbound edition was published in 2019. I’m still confused as both, on their copyright pages, indicate London, England as the release country.
My next “not published in 2021” favorite is Any Human Heart by William Boyd, published in 2002. It won me with its epic story about the fictional Logan Mountstuart, spanning the 20th century, his wholesome, sometimes broken, courageous, sometimes vulnerable, long life and deep friendships that I sunk into every night with anticipation. It will make you want to neglect all your responsibilities and ignore your cell phone. We follow him via his “intimate journals” from public school in England through his war service and marriages, a writing career, poverty, and finally to a solitary life in rural France. One of those classic, immersive novels I didn’t want to end.